Getting the Most Out of iTunes Match
When Apple launched the iTunes Match service, in late 2011, users were skeptical of a practical application for it. The promise was that it would store up to 25,000 of your songs on Apple’s iCloud servers and make them available on all your iOS and Mac devices.
In the first months it was glitchy, and there are still some unfortunate issues with it. In this tutorial, I’ll give you some tips to work around the common issues with iTunes Match, along with some ways to make it match your music properly.
Why Match is Worth Having
Some people have a hard time justifying that $24.99 (£21.99) per year subscription to iTunes Match. After all, they can just sync their files locally. Match is a bit more valuable than that, though. It may not always be as direct as Wi-Fi sync, but once you have songs in the cloud, they’re available wherever you are.
Another good reason to subscribe to Match is for storage. iOS devices still start at just 16 GB, and apps and pictures can add up fast, leaving very little room for your music. If you have an iPhone or iPad with LTE, you still have access to your library anywhere you are and you don’t have to use any local storage.
The same goes for devices like the MacBook Air, which have just 128 GB of space on the base models. If you have over 20 GB of music, like I do, it’s hard to squeeze everything in. The really nice thing about Match is that its limit is the number of songs, not the size.
You can technically upload a bunch of 320 Kbps files and carry top-notch audio with you everywhere; lossless, unfortunately, is not supported in Match—it will be encoded to 256 Kbps, as will anything over 320 Kbps.
Tip: Enabling iTunes Match disables local music sync for iOS devices. You must choose one or the other.
Speaking of audio quality, iTunes Match can help your library sound much better. Any songs that have a bitrate below 256 Kbps will be replaced with 256 Kbps copies in the cloud, provided they can be matched with something of that caliber from the iTunes Store.
Unfortunately, if there is no match found, the original file will be used. If it’s 120 Kbps, it will stay that way. This is why metadata is key, but I’ll get to that later on.
Since all of your music is available in the cloud, it’s only fair that your playlists are as well. When you first enable iTunes Match, it will match or upload all the songs in your library, including your playlists. Smart Playlists work too, because play count and rating data is synced across all your devices. Playlists in the cloud will be updated whenever the content is modified on any of your devices.
Most people don’t know this, but if you’re an iTunes Radio user, you’ll find that Match makes the experience even better by removing all ads. It’s a small bonus Apple put in the fine print. Pandora is still $36 per year, so $25 per year for ad-free access to iTunes Radio as well as space for 25,000 songs in the cloud is hard to beat.
The Elusive Matching Algorithm
It’d be nice if Apple gave users an official guide on how to better match their music, because doing it on your own accord is rather confusing. The algorithm Apple uses for Match doesn’t always understand the metadata accompanying music. Most of the time, it can adequately detect your songs automatically and match them to higher quality versions that are already available on iTunes’ servers. This saves a lot of uploading time.
Sometimes, though, things get jumbled.
Tip: Songs with a bitrate of 96 Kbps or less or a size over 200 MB will be ignored by iTunes Match and marked Ineligible.
The first time you set up iTunes Match, your computer will likely spend a while sending information to Apple’s servers to effectively detect which songs are already available and prevent redundancy. Since this process is flawed, there are some workarounds to prevent half your library from being uploaded—that can take a long time.
iTunes Match apparently uses individual songs, not albums, to create matches. This can be misleading at times, especially when you find the album in the iTunes Store and Match says uploading is the only way. When that happens, it’s a good idea to copy iTunes’ metadata.
Check the iTunes Store
I’ve assumed you’ve already enabled iTunes Match for this. When you add a new album to your library, it will automatically detect it and begin either matching or uploading the files.
Most of the time there is a delay, so you can edit some of the metadata in between. If it starts the process right away, you can stop it by clicking the x on the right of the progress bar in the top center of the iTunes interface.
Tip: It’s a good idea to display the iCloud Status of tracks in iTunes’ info columns. To do so, you must be in Songs or Playlists. Secondary-click the bar with Name, Artist, and other information on it and select iCloud Status. You can also select iCloud Download for a status icon.
Now that you’ve halted iTunes Match’s updating process, I recommend going to the iTunes Store and searching for the album (or songs from it) that you just imported. If you find results, make sure the genre is the same as the one in your library. The same goes for the track name, artist, and sorting information. No one really knows how Match’s algorithm works, so it’s a good idea to cover all your bases.
Custom artwork is a bit tricky. I like high-resolution artwork (1,000 pixels square) on my albums so it looks good on an iPad, but if the artwork is custom, Match wants to upload the whole file, even when a match is found, because the artwork needs to be combined with the track.
For an example, I downloaded HalfNoise’s EP from NoiseTrade and added it to my library, searching for it in the Store before to make sure matching was possible. Since Match uses individual songs, it wasn’t a big deal that there were instrumental versions of each song in addition to the regular tracks, plus they were in an separate album.
Assuming that Match uses a combination of metadata, song length, and possibly audio detection technology like Shazam, I added one of the songs to my library optimistically, leaving the others for further testing.
Tip: It’s important you know that Match isn’t a big fan of VBR MP3 files. They work most of the time, but I’ve had times when Coldplay refused to match and uploaded in the end. To fix this, I suggest re-encoding the tracks as AAC files.
iTunes Match immediately detected new content and went to work. It began uploading the song, despite it being available in the iTunes Store. I decided to stop it and retry. It turned out there was no genre associated with the track, nor a year, and the album name was missing iTunes’ little - EP tag.
I added those items and selected Update iTunes Match from the Store menu. Again, it wanted to upload the song. I canceled it again and decided to convert the file to AAC and try once more. It worked.
Well that wasn’t a big surprise: iTunes prefers an audio format it’s familiar with. However, I did find it strange that this particular MP3 didn’t work, so I tried the others in the album. Same initial problem. iTunes Match doesn’t seem to hate MP3s, though, because I matched a bunch of them when I first set things up. It seems that any MP3s lower than 256 Kbps will simply be rejected, so it’s best you convert your audio before matching it.
iTunes Match’s purpose is to make sure you always have a backup of your songs, so deleting them can confuse it. If you delete a song from the cloud on one device, but have it downloaded on another, it will be marked with an unhappy x-cloud. You can always delete it from that machine’s local storage as well.
When deleting songs from the iTunes library, with Match enabled, I highly recommend checking the Also delete this song from iCloud box. This will effectively remove it from any devices that are using Match.
Correcting the Strange Issues
The most annoying thing iTunes Match can do is tell you it’s Sending information about your library to Apple or present you with duplicate playlists. My computer often gets stuck on the former for hours thanks to a slow upload speed. I’ve discovered how to fix this issue, among a few others.
Stuck Sending or Receiving Information From Apple
This is a common problem with people who have slow upload speeds, but can happen to anyone—I’ve had the Match process suspend when on a 150x150 Mbps connection. Apple’s servers seem to stop talking to iTunes at a point, and iTunes still thinks Match will work properly.
There are a few resolutions for this problem. Cancel the Match process by clicking x beside the progress bar in the toolbar and restart it manually by selecting Update iTunes Match in the Store menu. This doesn’t always work, though. Sometimes you'll have to quit iTunes and try again, other times you'll have to do a full restart. Once it was so bad I had to disable and enable Match, which I do not recommend doing as it takes a long time to initialize again.
If you’ve tried all these things and still can’t get that one song to upload, delete it from the library, sign out of the iTunes account, restart the computer, sign back in, add the song, and try again. There are some major sticky cases and this should fix even the most ridiculous one.
The only other issue I’ve ever had with iTunes Match is duplicate playlists. Sometimes adding new tracks to a playlist on iOS will cause a second version of it to be created. This can be caused by your iTunes library being open at the same time, another device listening to that playlist, and various other things.
Whatever the root, repairing things is easy: delete the extra playlist. Make sure you distinguish the two, because one will likely have a different number of songs in it.
To remove a playlist in iTunes, navigate to the Playlists tab. Locate the culprit and either press the delete key when it’s selected or secondary-click it and choose Delete. Be sure to check your other devices after a few minutes to make sure the duplicate has been eradicated.
More Matching Ahead
WWDC 2014 proved that Apple is still very active in developing iCloud, despite services like iTunes Match appearing neglected. Additionally, it’s recent purchase of Beats shows that it will be doing something interesting with music in the future.
Right now, Match is limited, but social and streaming aspects may come to it eventually. For now, you know how to use it as effectively as possible. I’ve shown you the importance of audio format and metadata, why iTunes Match is nice to have, and quick fixes for issues. Take that knowledge and enjoy your music.